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The first trans-gay migrant caravan arrives at US border seeking asylum

Members of the Rainbow 16 pose in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. (WNV / Diversidad sin Fronteras)

A caravan of 16 LGBTQI migrants, along with a handful of allies, set out from the Mexican border town of Nogales on Thursday morning, heading to the U.S. border. Upon arriving, the group disembarked, unfurled a rainbow banner declaring, in Spanish, that the “First Trans Gay Migrant Caravan” had arrived. Allies looked on as the migrants surrendered themselves to border officials, where they are currently being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The 16 members of the caravan met in Mexico, many of them arriving by foot after fleeing violence and discrimination in their home countries, including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. For these asylum seekers, the broader societal issues of poverty and political instability were compounded by the “physical, psychological and verbal abuse” directed at trans and gay individuals. “We have to flee,” said Joseling, an intersex Nicaraguan woman and member of the “Rainbow 16.”

All of them hoped that their arrival in Mexico might spell the end of their arduous journeys. Yet, for many, their nightmare continued. “Most of us were denied the right to refugee status [in Mexico,]” wrote the organizers in a pre-caravan announcement. “Even though a few of us were granted asylum, we found ourselves reliving the experiences of violence and discrimination that we had suffered in Central America.” Some of these migrants reported being sexually abused or humiliated by Mexican officers.

Eventually, these common struggles bred unity among migrants and, in particular, among the trans women who continued to face violence and institutional discrimination. “The Mexican state denies trans women asylum almost every time,” said Nakay Flotte, a Mexican-American doctoral student who met the women during his research on law enforcement at the border. “Usually, they don’t even recognize them as women.” What’s more, Flotte added, even aid and migrants-rights organizations often overlook the particular challenges faced by trans women.

It soon became clear, however, that these women weren’t waiting for anyone. In shelters and on the street, the women began to connect and organize. “They began to organize and share their experiences,” said Flotte, who befriended the group. “They decided what their needs were. Everything is decided collectively.” The women determined that they had a better chance of finding safety in the United States, where — despite ongoing discrimination — LGBTQ individuals are granted more nominal legal protections.

As they prepared to travel to the U.S. border, however, they knew they risked further abuse. According to the Center for American Progress, “LGBT immigrants are 15 times more likely than other detainees to be sexually assaulted in confinement, and at least 200 incidents of abuse against LGBT immigrants in detention facilities were recorded between 2008 and 2014.” To make matters worse, the Department of Homeland Security has been shown to violate its own guidelines 88 percent of the time by “detaining, and thus endangering, LGBT persons unnecessarily.” Similarly, ICE detains LGBT immigrants 90 percent of the time, despite its own risk assessments advising detention only in extreme circumstances.

With this in mind, the migrants sought support from Mexico-based and U.S. allies. Together, the organizers chose to go public with their mission, calling on Americans to contact DHS to urge the authorities not to detain the caravan members on August 10. They disseminated information in Spanish and English, and provided template letters for allies to use for this purpose. The organizers received official support from social justice groups on both sides of the border, including Mariposas Sin Fronteras, Transgender Law Center, Family Trans Queer Liberation, IMUMI (Institute for Women in Migration), Kino Border Initiative, Keep Tucson Together, Instituto Legal, and No Más Muertes. In preparation for the journey, the “Rainbow 16” got legal advice from pro bono attorneys and practiced scenarios of interrogation from the DHS and ICE.

Members of the Rainbow 16 stand in Nogales, in front of a tableau of Jose Antonio, a young man killed by a border patrol agent five years ago. (WNV / Diversidad sin Fronteras)

On Thursday, flanked by their fellow organizers and allies, the group boarded buses bound for the border. At noon, they presented themselves to immigration officials, their “Rainbow 16” banner spread before them. They were escorted inside. A long afternoon ensued as allies on both sides of the border awaited news.

Speaking from the border on Thursday evening, Flotte reflected on the courage of the Rainbow 16, saying, “Obviously, now is not a great time to try to cross the border. Border officials are not exactly being encouraged to show compassion.” But the Rainbow 16 are driven by the desire for life and safety, Flotte said, noting a desire that’s already carried them across several countries. “It’s not about chasing the American Dream. It’s not even a political message, first and foremost. For them, it’s about surviving, about being free to be human beings. If they can’t find that in the United States, they’ll go to Canada. They just want to live.”

The group was held overnight by ICE. As of Friday morning, the Rainbow 16 support team does not have any news on their condition or the likelihood of their receiving parole. According to Flotte, if they are denied parole, the Rainbow 16 would likely be placed in a men’s detention facility, regardless of their self-described identities as trans, intersex or queer. The average wait-time for a bond hearing in Arizona’s 9th district is about six months. “The pressure won’t stop, no matter what,” Flotte said. “These women are brave. They won’t take no for an answer. They’ve suffered so much already.”